Why you should care
Because bingo isn’t just for the elderly.
Every week in the heart of West Hollywood, the rainbow flag capital of Los Angeles, a small but fabulous burger joint hosts an equally fabulous game night, one where, my friend and bingo aficionado Ivey Mansel warned me, I should “be prepared to yell things and throw stuff at strangers.” No homebodies allowed. It’s alcohol- and drama-filled, beloved by the LA crowd and christened Drag Queen Bingo.
It takes place at Hamburger Mary’s, a chain of sorts, with just the right amount of kitsch — there’s a wall of sparkly high heels, high-top bar tables and a disco ball in the gender-neutral bathroom that blasts Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” The weekly event has roots older than most high schoolers and has raised more than $4 million for area charities. The night I went, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was up for some goodwill cha-ching.
As the night goes on and the crowd — old, young, straight, gay and everything in between — gets increasingly belligerent, you sense the fantastically devious sense of enjoyment.
It works like this: Players fork over 20 bucks and receive a set of bingo scorecards, just like you’d imagine at any retirement center. But instead of the bingo combinations being given in boring old lingo, each winning pattern has a pun-intended name, like “pole dancer” for an up-and-down line, or “rim job” for a square around the center number. And when the hosts, trans activist and actress Calpernia Addams and vocalist Roxy Wood, call out the combinations on drawn bingo balls, the crowd responds with quirky, and often overtly sexual, callouts. For I-69, for example: “Dinner for two, sauce on the side!” It’s dirty. And hilarious. If you call bingo and it turns out you messed up and don’t have a bingo, you are promptly spanked. And not lightly. One gray-haired man with a tucked-in button-down “accidentally” called out a false bingo. If you ask me, he wanted it.
And victors? They get booed, in the most playful way, and are forced to run around the room while everyone yells, “Pelt her! Pelt her! All the way down and all the way back!” As the night goes on and the crowd — old, young, straight, gay and everything in between — gets increasingly belligerent, you sense the fantastically devious sense of enjoyment pulsing through the place as they (or we, I should say) hurl crumpled scorecards at total strangers. I mean, I didn’t hate it.
But it isn’t just shame dished out at game night. The winners get some pretty kick-ass prizes, and there’s a live auction too. Barry of Barry’s Bootcamp was on hand to encourage people to bid up some passes to his classes. Other prizes included a pet psychic session (it went for $200) and a weekend getaway to Sonoma wine country. According to 31-year-old Jonathan Andersen, who was at Hamburger Mary’s with UCLA ER colleagues, the best part is the drag queens, of course. They’re famous, at least to a certain degree. But don’t mistake their outrageous antics for a world without struggle. As Addams wrote in an open letter she published last year, “Pushed to the fringes, we were often forced to find dark humor in the worst of circumstances.” And they’ve played a serious role in the fight for LGBTQ rights. Adam Stewart, founder of International Drag Day, writes in an email that drag queens have “stood up, marched, performed and given their time for so many Pride events, rallies, fundraisers and campaigns all over the world.” He calls them a “rare breed … willing to put themselves out there no matter the consequences,” as during the Stonewall riots of 1969, which helped catalyze the gay rights movement and where drag queens were some of the first to be arrested.
They were fighting for their right to be whoever they wanted and say whatever they wanted. As Addams wrote, “I stand against censorship … I stand for art and self-determination.” The only requirement at Hamburger Mary’s? A whole lot of sass.